Seeing the world, one country at the time

No Sleep ‘Til Arequipa

Our first major trip as “backpackers” was on a bus south to Arequipa, marking the start of a 14-day tour, culminating in Machu Picchu. We had 14 hours in front of us on the Panamericana, a winding two lane dusty highway, the only road to travel from tip to tip of the South American continent. Fourteen hours sounded dreadfully long. Within two months this would seem a short jaunt, with some 26-hour bus rides under our belts.

A very organized, friendly driver welcomed us on board. The bus steward filmed everyone on the bus, twice. I thought it must be a terrorist backlash. In reality, it was a security measure for robberies or assaults, which are common on Peruvian roads these days. We sat in plush seats, watched two movies and ate a warm dinner heated in an oven in the back. We had several stops en route for passenger pick ups. One day these stops would cause us anxiety, but for now everything was new and exciting. Every moment was the answer to a larger curiosity we felt for everything.

Just after leaving Lima we were suddenly in the desert; a grayish brown as far as the eye can see. It’s a dull color, which sunshine neither detracts from nor enhances. This is what you find all the way down the coast. There is an occasional planted tree, breaking up the monotony. Shantytowns lie to the left, painted colorfully. On the right, near the shore, you can see the Pacific’s powerful waves. Simple houses within gated communities are interspersed along the coast. Everywhere are hills and mountains of sand. I wondered how many had towns and cities dotted among them, hidden from our eyes. Waves of sand hide 4,000 years of civilizations beneath and again I’m reminded that next to nature we are insignificant. The beaches south of Lima are popular for R&R, but they lie abandoned during the cool, hazy spring months, adding to the sense of desolation.

We pass some police checkpoints. There are more trees and ranches along the road as we continue south. There are colorful, squat one-story buildings with flat roofs and political slogans painted on their walls. These houses so far from anything, I wonder what their owners do for a living. Dozens of empty tents or stalls are lined up in rows. They become colorful and lively markets on weekends and festival days. I watched the empty beach racing by and the bright red disk of the sun falling over the ocean. A silver-gray haze sets over the desert. The Panamericana and surrounding land blur together until I can see no details or landmarks, though there is occasional light in the hills. The color changes from brown to gray to blue after sunset.

I realized that with the growing darkness I wouldn’t be able to see the bends along the route and I would wonder if the trucks careening toward us would stay in their lane, if their driver was sleepy or drunk, or if they would lose their loads on a tight curve. It happened every week, noted friends in Lima. I noticed that the mountain villages had electricity again, which was often sabotaged by the Shining Path guerrillas during the 80’s and 90’s. At least Fujimori, Peru’s ex-President non-grata, did some good for the country by suppressing terrorism before stealing from the government coffers.

It was misty and cold at night. The bus tossed and turned, making it impossible to sleep as it swerved around mountains. The temperature in this area is cool and humid. It always seems to be about to rain, but it doesn’t. Lima and its neighboring coast have 99% humidity, yet are so dry that nearly nothing grows and crime victims and mummies thousands of years old can be found in near perfect condition, buried in the sand. When I lived in Lima, I had heard of rain and dreamt of seeing it. One day I felt a wetness on my face and yelled for my mother to come and see; “It’s raining!” She almost broke my heart when she gently corrected me, explaining that that wasn’t rain, it was just the “garua”, a type of mist.

As the night made space for daybreak, I could make out cactus and endless desert. The road is carved out of mountains of sand. There is dust everywhere. Someone had planted trees here and there but they were only one foot tall. Straw or brick buildings dotted the barren landscape. The villagers had “fences”; territory demarcations made of tires. They sold straw as building material, which is used extensively by the inhabitants of the highlands. I could finally see the foothills of the Andes, covered in snow in the distance. The view announced our proximity to Arequipa, a city surrounded by high volcanoes. As the bus slowly awoke, our steward pointed out the peaks of Pichu Pichu, covered in snow, Misti, where the famous ice maiden was found, and Chanchani.

Far below, by a river, was a verdant valley. The houses of straw became brick, simple and unsturdy. They made me wonder why Peruvians didn’t build like the Incas anymore, why they lost that skill. It reminded me of what I learned at the museum in Lima, that as every civilization falls, we have to relearn skills from the beginning. The Incas had successful, advanced brain surgery techniques. Yet we believe that we came up with everything; that brain surgery is a miracle of modern medicine and that ancient medicine was only witchcraft and blood-letting. My musings were interrupted by our bus steward passing out bingo cards. It felt a little surreal to play bingo at 7 am on a bus in Peru. And to make matters worse, I didn’t win.